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 The Fleetway interviews #5

 The Hound talks to Graham Exton...

  In March 2003, TheHound talked to Graham Exton, the Demon Writer of
  Fleetway Street who brought us Sweeny Toddler, Oink!'s Uncle Pigg
  and many more...
     Sweeny Toddler - Toddzilla!   
The Man With No Name
   Graham Exton is one of the unsung
   heroes of Fleetway St....

   Todzilla Speaks

   From Toddler to Uncle - Graham
   talks about his life in toons...

   A Gif(t) From Graham

   Now here's a present and a half -
   a trio of fantastic script and strip
   scans, courtesy of Mr Exton...


   The Fleetway artists are often referred to as having received a 'raw deal' from their
   publishers, with their names infrequently mentioned on the editor's page and their
   signatures missing from far too many strips. But at least they can be identified,
   through comparison and research (and web sites like Toonhound).

   Pity more the poor Fleetway writers, like Graham Exton. Graham is truly one
   of the unsung heroes of those comics. His name doesn't appear to have been
   mentioned anywhere in the weekly titles and yet it's his fertile - or indeed, furtive
   -imagination which lead that horror-in-a-romper Sweeny Toddler towards the peak
   of his popularity. Graham created that hay-stuffed yokel Strawbelly, put together
   Spare-Part Kit and had a trotter in the swill that was moulded into Oink! comic..

   Ooh-ar! - It's Strawbelly...Spare-Part Kit...

   You know, there was a wild period during the mid-to-late-eighties, when Sweeny
   was shifted from Whoopee! to Whizzer & Chips, with Tom Paterson now holding
   the Sweeny pen and Graham scripting pop culture spoofs of He-Toddler, Sweeny
   Crockett, Robinson Sweeny and so many more - it was pure comic strip
   genius. Mad as March Hares boxing in your custard, but genius none the less.

   Now here's another revelation. Those particular Sweeny strips are still renowned
   for their incredibly stupid inserts, signs and asides running parallel to the main
   story. These have often been attributed solely to Tom Paterson - The Hound has
   even suggested the same before now - but in reality many appeared courtesy of
   Mr. Exton, as his scripts prove. The Sweeny Show was very much a two-handed
   production - heck, I bet that demonic Toddler needed a dozen pairs of eyes
   on him at all times...

   Graham is one of those creatives whose talent is very difficult to bottle. He's
   full of ideas and creations. Light the touch paper, stand back and watch his
   display. It's truly a shame that the outlets for such creativity have all-but dried
   up. If anyone WAS thinking of bringing back a weekly comic, Graham would
   be the prefect firecracker to stimulate the project...

   ...But you'd have to track him down first. When the Fleetway comics folded,
   so did Graham's London life. He's now moved a world away from the smog and
   grime of Fleetway HQ, to the permanent sunshine of The Bahamas. So what's
   he doing out there, has he been exiled Napoleon-style to a foreign outpost
   from which he hones his plans for Cartoon Domination? - Find out for yourself
   in our 5th Fleetway Q&A as we talk to 'Toddzilla' himself, Mr Graham Exton...


    Oink! - It's Graham Exton! 

   Gosh, how many times has it happened? - Rather than me chasing around after
   interviewees, the people in question have contacted me first. That's what Graham
   did after he found Spare-Part Kit over on Fleetway St. He emailed me from his
   home in The Bahamas to fill in the gory details of Kit's past, and when he
   mentioned his additional involvement with Sweeny and Oink! - well - that just
   added a whole can of spray cream to my coffee. What follows is the resulting
   Q&A. And if the way we made contact adhered to an old formula, so too did
   my questions. Cue those wibbly-wobbly fx as we go back, all the way back,
   to the beginning....

   Let’s begin at the beginning, where do you hale from. Have you
   always been into comics and publishing?

   I’m from Stafford, published my first thing at a Cub Scout event. We collected
   the exciting “news”, scraped them onto a wax master sheet, then ran them
   off on an old banda machine...)

   And you draw as well as write, of course...

   Yup. I started off as a kid drawing Giant Man and Spidey from my burgeoning
   collection of Marvel comics. Pretty soon all the kids in my class were doing
   the same, and our room was covered in the things. They looked very good
   considering we were all seven or eight years old. I realised I was actually
   crap at the superhero stuff when my college buddy Mark Rodgers (Oink!
   and Round the Bend supremo) wrote silly captions for a Triton comic I had
   drawn. I drew some Sweenies in the eighties, and there were one or two I
   was proud of. I managed to get IPC to publish a chicken that looked exactly
   like a scrotum. And they coloured it in! I also got Noddy’s car and a snazzy
   Alfa in there. I copied them from my Matchbox versions.

   So who are your heroes and influences, Marvel artists, right?

Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Leo Baxendale, Don Martin, Ken Reid. I started
   drawing funny strips by copying Danny from The Bash Street Kids. To this
   day my stuff looks very Baxendale - ish. Good thing he’s changed his style
   completely! The Beatles and Monty Python humour was also very important.
   Mark Rodgers taught me that you need a good ending.

   When did you start writing for Fleetway/IPC, and how did the job
   come about?

   In the early eighties, just as I was finishing college (Leeds University), my
   friend Mark Rodgers started writing scripts for IPC. Mark was a big influence.
   He was fearless, having a go at everything and he was the reason I got work
   from IPC. He made in-roads with his scripts, and I followed his example.

   So how did things work for you. Were you handed characters to
   write for, or were you offered a selection of strips to choose from?

   A surefire way to get commissions was to do scripts that no one else wanted
   to do, like Sid’s Snake. I was given it full-time, at one point, but couldn’t think
   of enough things to do with a snake. (As in “1001 things to do with a Dead Cat”)
   Viz had the right idea when they killed off and ate Victor’s Boa-
   I suspect one of them had had enough of Sid’s Snake too. Also when a writer
   went mad, defected to Thomsons or just gave up on a strip, the editor
   (usually Bob Paynter) would try it on one of the new writers to see if they could
   stick at it a bit longer. Weekly comics gobble up scripts, so there was always
   a struggle to fill up the pages. (Until they discovered reprints!)

   Mark and I did it the wrong way round, sending in loads of ideas for new strips.
   We had this idea that most of what IPC published was unfunny, and what they
   needed was some real humour. We ended up doing other folks’ strips for the
   most part, but Mark got Deadly Hedley published, illustrated by Leo Baxendale’s
   lad, no less, and D. H was entirely Mark’s character. The others that we did were
   suggested by Bob Paynter, and we developed them.

   How many strips were you writing for, at your ‘peak’, and can you
   recall which ones they were?

   Not as many as Mark, who was doing entire comics almost single-handedly
   at one point. But I was doing Gums, Sid’s Sodding Snake, Faceache,
   Spare Part Kit, Sweeny Toddler, and numerous fill-ins which I did to bolster
   my Florida Holiday fund. I ditched most of them to do just Sweeny by the time
   I moved to the Bahamas.

   A lot of strips, then. What sort of turnaround time were you working to?

   I think it was about a month from script to publication. Sometimes a script
   would come back for a rewrite, so then it would take longer.

   I’ve not seen a Fleetway script before. How is/was that kind of
   thing presented - pencil sketches and dialogue, like a storyboard,
   or just plain script?

   Anything would do, seemingly. I made a point of typing everything up, as
   I wanted to improve my typing. Then I decided I wanted to draw, so I sketched
   out the layouts with the talks balloons. I was dead chuffed when Tom Paterson
   would use my layouts, as it meant I was doing it right. It must have made
   things a bit easier for him, too. I’ve enclosed the script from Toddler From
   the Black Lagoon (or Toddler from a Blank Loony, as Sweeny called it) for your
   amusement. It was one of my favourites. Tony Husband, prize-winning alumnus
   of Oink! and Private Eye, used to send in the most amazing scripts - barely
   legible with blobs where the characters went. But it was all you needed as long
   as you could read it.

   You’ve also mentioned the more ‘gruesome’ aspects of your
   original Kit idea. Have you any other original strip ideas or storylines
   from the Fleetway days that were also toned down, or indeed,
   rejected outright?

   Bob Paynter wanted a script about super-surgery. There must have been
   something in the news about it. I had a kid with a supply of famous people’s
   body parts. I would have him nip behind a curtain, sew on a famous athlete’s
   legs and then do something heroic. It begged the question: where the heck
   did he get the parts, and what about the original owners? Mr P toned it down
   to a sort of kiddie Iron Man. A rather gay-looking kiddie Iron Man, in fact!

   The only rejection I got was one where Sweeny behaved like a real toddler
   and pooed his pants. I managed to get the one with the nuclear guff in it
   just fine. I personally edited out the corporal punishment so common in early
   Sweenies and Dennis the Menaces. It meant Dad had to be more inventive
   with his punishments, for one thing. Also it was more PC.

   How come you ended up with Sweeny - I assume you worked
   closely with Tom Paterson on this?

   I thought it would be amusing to have Sweeny dress up as Judge Dredd
   and shout, “Me IS the Law!” so I did a script with him on the cover doing
   just that. I sent it to IPC and Mark Rodgers (him again!) happened to be in
   the office at the time. Bob Paynter was taken with the Sweeny idea, and was
   showing it to his pals, saying, “Look what Tom did!” Mark recognised the style
   and pointed out that I did it, so they then offered me Sweeny on a full-time
   basis. I don’t know who was doing it before then. I was very happy to get the
   cover and the best character. Sadly, I don’t know Tom Paterson at all!
   The scripts were sent to IPC, and then on to Tom, who did his wonderful
   stuff. As we are both Baxendale fans, it wasn’t hard to keep everything
   consistent with the Sweeny style. A lot of writers and artists must have
   shared the feeling of tossing work out into a void, then seeing it in print a
   month or so later. It was very strange.

   Strawbelly was intriguing. The farm-owner was quite a 'sexy'
   single lady, for a Fleetway strip. How did the strip come about?

   Mark developed it as IPCs cheap answer to Worzel Gummidge. (It’s cheaper
   to invent an “original” character, rather than secure the rights to a popular TV
   character, and IPC were good at saving money.) None of the pro artists could
   come up with a visually satisfactory Strawbelly, or indeed any of the characters,
   so I did some for Mark, and they were the ones that were used. I did not get any
   remuneration for my efforts, but it turned out to be a nice strip. Ian Knox did
   the art, and he’s topnotch. The characters were named after food because kids
   love food. (What else do they know about?) Mark’s girlfriend Helen was (and is)
   an independent soul, and probably inspired the character. She was called
   Something Shortcake, I think. Mark knew nothing about the countryside, being
   a Middlesborough lad, yet somehow wrote strip after strip. He did the same
   with Boy Boss, even though he knew bugger-all about business. A true
   writer! (Or B.S merchant.)

   And then there was Oink! - A popular comic, even today. You must
   be chuffed with it's continuing popularity. Can you tell us more
   about its birth?

   I’ve enclosed one of the original strips that I did when the “Junior Viz” was
   being developed. Mark Rodgers, Tony Husband and Patrick Gallagher were
   the Big Three. They were all based in Manchester at the time. I was on my
   way to the Bahamas to teach, but managed to sit in on a few meetings, as
   well as create a few strips. Weirdly, a lot of the comics we made up featured
   pigs, so Bob Paynter suggested a pig theme. I chipped in the idea of a
   Tharg-like character as editor, and we came up with Uncle Pigg. (Original
   name, eh?) I remembered the old Bullshit Bulletins at Marvel, and the cult
   of personality that Stan Lee built for himself, and thought, that’s what we
   need. I wish something like Oink! was still going. There are so many talented
   writers and artists that no longer have an outlet. It always seemed a bit
   subversive too, and that’s always fun, if nothing else. It became “Round The
   Bend” on TV. The reason why Doc Crock replaced Uncle Pigg was that it’s
   cheaper to invent a new character, rather than .. You get the picture.
   IPC wanted too much loot for the rights to Uncle Pigg, not realising that the
   best way to sell comics is to have a TV tie-in.

   ...And why did it fold, or rather 'merge' with Buster? - Lack of
   sales, I assume...

   1) Robert Maxwell 2) W.H. Smith.

   I think we all know what happened to Maxwells’s business ventures.
   Smiths caved in to pressure from some silly woman in Portsmouth who
   took exception to a strip in Oink! (Canceling her subscription presumably
   did not occur to her.) Oink! was moved to the adult section next to Viz where
   kids could no longer find it. There were a lot of letters complaining that it had
   been canceled, when it hadn’t at all. The kids just couldn’t reach it up on the
   top shelf!

   When we first exchanged emails you mentioned teaching in
   Cannock - can you tell us more. What were you teaching, exactly?

   My first teaching job was English Lang and Lit at Sherbrook School in Cannock.
   I got the kids to help with the research for School Fun, most of which was
   ignored by IPC, hence the generally crappy nature of the comic. We had a lot
   of fun in the process. The best work they did was develop the Butlitz Holiday
   Camp, full of favourite and not-so favourite teachers being interrogated and so on.
   Good, clean, violent fun.

   After Fleetway, what did you do?

   Then I got a job teaching Lang and Lit in the Bahamas, and the comic work
   petered out. I was vaguely pleased that my old Sweenies were being repeated,
   but not so pleased that neither Tom nor I got anything out of it.

   And what are you up to in the Bahamas? - it’s a long way from
   Fleetway HQ!

   I’m still teaching Lang and Lit. I do a lot of worksheets, as most of our text
   books are unsuitable for Bahamian children. And the worksheets always have
   cartoon pics on them. That way the kids have something to draw when they
   finish their proper work. They like them, and tell me I’m “jokey.” (Bahamian
   dialect meaning “cool, in an amusing way.”)

   Have you any new cartoon or comics projects up your sleeve -
   What are you up to now, creatively-speaking?

   I’m writing a book, like most English teachers, but there’s a chance that this
   one will get finished, as I know how it ends. Then it’s a matter of persuading
   some publisher to print it - that’s the really hard bit. I have tons of cartoon ideas
   and many finished products. I’ve never conned anyone into publishing any.
   I’m very fond of “CC and RW”. CC stands for “A Caped Crusader” (as opposed
   to THE Caped Crusader) and RW is Roy Wonder. It’s not a straight Batman
   parody, just a vehicle for whatever was on my mind at the time. I did some
   strips called Evil Jimmy Weevil too, using the time-honoured idea of it
   being easier and cheaper to create a new character etc etc..

   Do you still keep in touch with any of the Fleetway 'gang'?

   I don’t think there was a “gang” as such, as everyone worked in isolation. At least
   at Thomson's they had a sort of bullpen. They paid miserably, however, so I don’t
   mind not being part of that group. Mark died in 1993 (Sob! Choke!), but I still have
   occasional correspondence with Tony Husband. Incidentally, Tony has his own
   website, and Patrick Gallagher writes for Lard and the other one on Radio One.
   (Lard is Mark Reiley, of Fall and Creeper fame, and he did Harry the Head in
   Oink! as well as sang the songs on the Oink! EP.) The bloke under the Frank
   Sidebottom head may have some amusing anecdotes, but I can’t vouch for his
   sanity. I’m glad Toonhound exists, as a lot of folks put their all into some of
   those cartoon strips. They deserve some credit. You wouldn’t believe how long
   some of those stupid comics took to gestate! I hope your readers enjoy
   my ramblings...



   Gosh, as if the Q&A wasn't enough, Graham has very kindly supplied three
   script and strip scans to share with Toonhound visitors. Click on the thumbnails
   to partake of Sweeny Toddler, Evil Jimmy Weevil, and Percy's Pig. They may
   take a little time to load but, by heck, they're worth the wait...

     1. Graham Exton's 'Toddler From The Black Laggon'    2. Graham Exton's 'Evil Jimmy Weevil'
   3.  'Percy's Pig' by Graham Exton

  1. Graham has kindly let us reproduce this scan of a Sweeny script as drawn
      by him. 'Toddler From The Black Lagoon' is one of Graham's favourite tales,
      and the final strip was of course illustrated by the marvellous Tom Paterson.
      As you can see, all of those asides and details so often attributed to Mr P
      are, equally, Mr E's work too....

  2. Evil Jimmy Weevil is an original Graham Exton creation, as he mentions
      in the Q&A. Jimmy twists his name from that death-defying daredevil
      Evil Kneivel, but he's no Fall Guy. In this fab strip, Jimmy shows us
      exactly how his mate 'Twang' acquired such an interesting First Name.

  3. And last but not least, here's 'Percy's Pig' from the comic Graham refers
      to as 'Junior Viz', buy you and I know as 'Oink!'. A fab strip this, with an
     eccentric star character and a splendid helping of surreal off-panel violence...


   Thus gorged and happy, we rounded up our 5th Fleetway interview. A bumper
   bundle this time, don't you think? - Graham was most forthcoming with answers
   to my questions, and offering those splendid scans to share with you. Remember,
   he also added further enlightenment to my Spare-Part Kit page - Many thanks,
   Mr Exton - Now don't forget, there are more than 100 Fleetway strips indexed
   in detail over on Fleetway St....

    - Till next time!


all art copyright Graham Exton / Fleetway/IPC  / F2000-2004